February 29, 2008

Black Superdelegates Get Harassed By .... Obama Supporters?

Black superdelegates report harassment, intimidation, and namecalling in attempts to get them to change their votes. Has this come from the vaunted Clinton machine, desperately attempting to pull out a miracle win? No -- it comes from affiliates of the Barack Obama campaign, which hardly needs the hard sell (via Memeorandum):

African-American superdelegates said Thursday that they’ll stand up against threats, intimidation and “Uncle Tom” smears rather than switch their support from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to Sen. Barack Obama.

“African-American superdelegates are being targeted, harassed and threatened,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a superdelegate who has supported Clinton since August. Cleaver said black superdelegates are receiving “nasty letters, phone calls, threats they’ll get an opponent, being called an Uncle Tom.

“This is the politics of the 1950s,” he complained. “A lot of members are experiencing a lot of ugly stuff. They’re not going to talk about it, but it’s happening.”

After civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) switched his support from Clinton to Obama earlier this week, other black superdelegates have come under renewed pressure to do a similar about-face. A handful have bowed to the entreaties in recent weeks, including Georgia Rep. David Scott, but many say they are steadfast in their support for Clinton and resent strong-arm tactics to make them change.

This ugliness is the inevitable product of the Democratic delegate structure. One has to remember that the superdelegates comprise 20% of the total delegates, and that they are almost all public office holders. Their votes will determine the nominee, not the popular vote in the primaries and caucuses -- and their constituents will hold them responsible if they vote in opposition to them.

For a candidate who supposedly wants a new kind of politics, this looks a lot like an older version that we thought we'd left behind. Obama's supporters, at least, don't seem to have much problem playing the race card with the superdelegates. That might work in the Democratic primaries, but this naked power play with identity politics will diminish his prospects in a general election, and it won't help other Democrats, either.

It portends ugly divisions for the party in July, when they meet for the convention. Only an early withdrawal by Hillary Clinton will avoid it, and at the moment that doesn't look likely. She's leading in both Ohio and Texas in some polls, although in Texas she's slipped behind Obama in most. If she stays in the race, the ugliness will only increase, and the bitterness will not easily fade.

The Democrats need to overhaul their delegate system, or put the pretense of a popular nomination process aside. They cannot expect people to sit idle as their elected representatives gainsay their will at the ballot box, and the superdelegates won't stand for it again after this, either. They have to run for re-election in these districts and states, and getting called an "Uncle Tom" doesn't make for a great campaign slogan.

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